Overnight camping to be banned in three Abbotsford parks

New bylaw permits tenting between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. in all city parks except Mill Lake and Exhibition parks, and the city plaza.

The City of Abbotsford's new parks bylaw sets the stage for the removal of a long-standing homeless camp on the side of Gladys Avenue.

Homeless campers will be banned from three city parks, as well as playgrounds, sports fields and other infrastructure, under a new bylaw that will replace one ruled unconstitutional by a Supreme Court justice last year.

Mayor Henry Braun said the new parks bylaw – which was given three readings at Monday’s council meeting – aims to balance the public interest with the concerns raised by Justice Christopher Hinkson, who ruled last fall that the city could not outright prohibit homeless men and women who have nowhere else to go from setting up tents on city land.

The new bylaw allows homeless people to set up a “temporary shelter” in a park between the hours of 7 p.m. and 9 a.m., provided there is “no accessible shelter accommodation available in the city.” But the bylaw maintains the camping ban in Abbotsford’s three city-wide parks: Mill Lake Park, Exhibition Park, and Civic Centre, which includes the land around city hall, Clearbrook Library, Abbotsford Police Department and other local government buildings.

Those parks are designated as such because they include a range of activities that draw people from around Abbotsford, parks director James Arden told council Monday. But Jubilee Park didn’t fit that bill, Arden said in response to a question from Coun. Dave Loewen.

Mayor Henry Braun told The News Tuesday that he felt that a ban on camping in Jubilee would have likely drawn another court challenge of the parks bylaw. As it is, Braun said he wasn’t sure if the new bylaw would draw a lawsuit.

“Some people try to throw rocks, no matter what we do,” he said. However, Braun maintained that the city had tried to meet the spirit of Hinkson’s decision, and had not prohibited camping in the vast majority of city parks.

“I hope this will pass the test,” he said.

In the trial last summer, a group of homeless activists represented by Pivot Legal Society argued city bylaws banning sleeping outdoors violated the homeless’ rights to life, liberty and personal security as laid out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Hinkson ruled that when there aren’t enough shelter spaces in a community, banning sheltered outdoor sleeping violates fundamental rights, but he also said the city has a right to outlaw permanent camps.

The bylaw also prohibits erecting shelters on playgrounds, garden areas, sports facilities, stages or bleachers, picnic shelters or gazebos, recreation facilities, cemeteries, golf courses, and docks. And it also prohibits camping in areas for which a permit has been issued, a clause that hopes to decrease the likelihood of conflict between the homeless and those holding events.

The bylaw also amends the definition of a park to exclude land defined as a “highway,” a provision that would affect the status of the long-standing camp on the side of Gladys Avenue. After the bylaw is formally adopted next week, the city will step up efforts to move residents of the camp into housing, Braun said.

“We’re trying to do this respectfully,” said Braun, who called the efforts to remove the camp “a process.” But he added that the city may end up back in court to seek an injunction to evict the residents from the land if some try to stay.

“The court case is over, the protest needs to come to an end,” he said. “The judge said it’s not a healthy place to be living.”